In Pursuit of Racial Justice: The Politics and Consequences of Racial Disparity Reform in the U.S. Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Political Science
criminal justice
criminal justice reform
disproportionate minority contact
racial disparity reform
racial inequality
Criminology and Criminal Justice
Political Science
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Overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities is a troubling fact in the U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems. The scope and racial character of American criminal processing is critically shaped by politics. Scholarship has focused on the politics that helped to forge a large and racially disparate criminal justice system as well as recent political attempts to scale back criminal justice operations. This study examines the political development and consequences of policies aiming to reduce racial inequalities in the adult and juvenile justice systems. It introduces the concept of "racial disparity reform," or any policy that seeks to diminish unnecessary or adverse criminal processing differences among racial groups. Reforms range from exploratory studies and restrictions on using race as a decision-making factor to mandatory interventions throughout an entire justice system. These measures are based on policymakers’ beliefs about the consistent and legitimate application of the law. This research argues racial disparity reform is politically possible and consequential in curbing inequalities. Three methodological strategies support this claim. First, this study uses legislative and executive documents to qualitatively test how different problem definitions of racial inequality led to distinct national policy responses. Ideas of disproportionate impact motivated exploratory reform in capital punishment, beliefs of discrimination encouraged prohibitory reform in racial profiling, and constructions of disparity and discrimination prompted comprehensive reform in youth confinement. Second, it quantitatively identifies the socio-political factors associated with reform developments in the states. Reform is more likely when Democrats control the elected branches, racial disproportionalities worsen, and judiciaries do not have active reform efforts. Finally, this study uses multivariate techniques to distinguish the racially egalitarian effects of a congressional mandate requiring states to reduce the disproportionate number of minorities processed throughout their juvenile justice systems. Intervention on behalf of this racial disparity reform diminishes the likelihood of punitive sanctioning and decreases the size of processed minority youth populations. This study concludes politics is important in generating more racially just criminal processing practices and redefining the future of American criminal justice.

John MacDonald
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